Now's your chance to buy an entire college campus: Urbana University is for sale

Jim Weiker
The Columbus Dispatch
Urbana University is for sale, after closing in 2020 as a branch of Franklin University.

Here's one way to get to college: buy one.

The former Urbana University in Urbana, north of Springfield, is for sale – all 115 acres and 22 buildings of it. 

Buyers would get a science laboratory, nine dormitories with about 550 bedrooms, a new football and soccer field (with stadium seating and a Blue Knights logo), a theater, a dining hall, a commercial kitchen, a library, and an athletic center with natatorium, basketball court and racquetball courts.

They also get plenty of history. The sale includes Barclay Hall, built in 1853, three years after the university was founded by followers – including Johnny Appleseed – of the Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg.

The Urbana University library was built in 1965 and renovated in 2015.

While rare in Ohio, the sale of universities has become more common in recent years as smaller schools struggle to attract students and remain solvent. In 2014, after years of enrollment declines and mounting debt, Urbana University was bought by Franklin University in Columbus, which operated Urbana as a division of Franklin. 

Despite Franklin's considerable investment in Urbana, that arrangement proved unsustainable, said Franklin President David Decker. 

"We spent five, six, years and many, many millions to try to turn the operation around, and when COVID came, it just added too much uncertainty to the campus," Decker said. 

Franklin announced a year ago that it would close Urbana, which at the time had 350 remaining residential students. 

"We don't have a use for it in our own operations," Decker said. "We maintained the property very well and so are marketing it."

For the city of Urbana, the closing of the college, which defined the town for 170 years, was crushing news.

"It was a devastating loss for the community," said Marcia Bailey, director of the Champaign Economic Partnership organization. "It’s always been here. I'm an alumni, so I have heartstrings in it too."

Bailey said the university seemed to close "virtually overnight" last year, taking with it much of an estimated $60-million annual economic impact on Urbana.

Urbana University's 115-acre campus, with 22 buildings, is for sale.

The property is listed by the commercial real estate firm CBRE without a price. The Champaign County Auditor values the campus' 31 parcels at $12.7 million, although the property's value would depend considerably on the user. For some, the campus buildings and facilities would be an asset; for others, they would be a liability requiring costly demolition.  

"We did not go out with an asking price because of the customized nature of this offering," said Anne Rahm, who is handling the listing as Midwest regional manager for CBRE’s Public Institutions and Education Group. 

"The price for an educational user might be different than the price for a developer," Rahm added. "We’re letting the market dictate the price."

For an educational buyer – a college, or boarding school, for example – the property is move-in ready. Franklin University has kept the property in excellent condition, and has spent more than $7 million on a new athletic field, new lighting, mechanicals, roofs, parking lots, and (in 2018) a new athletic facility.

The Urbana University site includes athletic fields, dormitories and classroom and lecture halls, such as the Lewis and Jean
Moore Center for Mathematics and Science, shown here.

Rahm also thinks the property, with its housing and auditoriums and kitchen facilities, is well-suited for a corporate retreat or other training center.

"We're appealing to institutional investors, such as corporations for off-site training, or senior living would be another one," she said.

Rahm said the property has already drawn tire-kickers, even though it was only recently listed.

"We've had a great deal of interest, some from investors who invest in this very thing, vacant campuses," she said. "Our highest interest has come from residential developers. It's an absolutely beautiful campus, right for residential redevelopment, which is needed in the Urbana market." 

Urbana University's science and math building includes this lecture hall.

Some prospects have been interested in buying a portion of the property, but Franklin would prefer to sell the entire campus, Rahm said.

Rahm could not recall a comparable college being sold in the Midwest, but said such listings are increasingly common.

Several colleges have sold in the past few years, almost all of them in the Northeast, according to Forbes magazine. Among them: Green Mountain College in Vermont ($4.5 million), the College of New Rochelle in New York ($32 million), Newbury College in Massachusetts ($34 million) and Marlboro College in Vermont ($1.75 million). 

CBRE is also in discussion to list university properties in Denver and Miami, Rahm said. More common than entire campuses are pieces of campuses, as cash-strapped colleges reexamine their real estate needs.

"We're seeing universities under budget constraints looking at their surplus assets right now," she said.

Urbana University's student union, built in 2005, last hosted students last spring.

The city of Urbana, eager to avoid a vacant campus, has sweetened the pot with several tax break programs a developer could take advantage of. The campus sits in an Enterprise Zone, a Community Redevelopment Act district, and an Urbana Energy Special Improvement District.

Bailey said many community members would prefer to see the campus "just opened back up again" as a college.

"It would be great if it could return as an educational institution; that would be the primary interest," she said. "There’s residential all around it, so it could also lend itself to residential but would have to go through zoning changes."

For now, Urbana residents just hope the campus doesn't sit vacant long.

"So far, we just keep hearing rumors," Bailey said. "We’re hopeful it will get utilized pretty soon."